In the bar overlooking the twisting vines of India’s answer to Napa Valley, a group of friends from Mumbai enjoy a weekend getaway and a chance to brush up on their new hobby: wine.
“I’ve been teetotal all my life, but quite recently I started to drink wine. It’s a growing trend,” 30-year-old housewife Jol Kapadia said while sipping on a glass of Chenin Blanc at Sula Vineyards.
The winery is based in the fertile western district of Nashik, India’s grape-growing capital, and a three-hour drive through the mountains from the teeming metropolis of Mumbai.
Boasting India’s first vineyard resort — billed as an “antidote for stressed out city folk” — Sula is luring crowds of urban middle-class tourists who are eager to learn more about wine.
“Our Indian palates are still being trained,” retired colonel Pratap Nair said on a tour and tasting session with a group of fellow ex-officers and their wives from Pune, another city a few hours away.
Traditionally, quaffing wine in India meant downing cheap port to get drunk, Nair said.
It was a “man’s thing” and not associated with a healthy lifestyle or even dinner — unless you were among the tiny elite who could afford imported vintages.
Access to foreign bottles has been hugely limited by import duties and taxes, so pioneering domestic vineyards are keen to promote a European-style wine culture.
Sula, which has a 70 percent share of India’s wine market, is using the vineyard visits to this end. The company says that between 600 and 700 daytrippers or resort guests drop by each weekend for a tour, a meal or a drink on the balcony bar.
The mixed clientele on a recent Saturday suggested that wine’s appeal is broadening: Motorbikes as well as BMWs filled the car park, while some women in saris and others in jeans enjoyed the sunset views.
“They’re coming with their families and they’re open to the idea of wine,” Sula hospitality executive Swapnil Dangarikar said.
They are encouraged to enjoy wine with food: The menu at the on-site Indian restaurant suggests novel pairings such as Cabernet Shiraz and chicken tikka masala.
Nair remains to be convinced by the quality of Indian wine — “you can’t compare it to French, South African or Californian,” he said — but he praised Sula’s encouragement of a “family experience.”
Savvy marketing techniques are crucial for vineyards in India, where spirits and beer are the favorite drinks, advertising alcohol is banned and each state imposes its own — often crippling — taxes and regulations.
Just 0.01 liters of wine were drunk per person in India in 2010, compared with 0.69 liters in China — now a major international wine market — and 45.70 liters in France, US Trade Data and Analysis figures show.
However, the small Indian market is expanding rapidly, with consumption rising 40 percent in the three years from 2007.
Much of the surging demand is said to be driven by women, who have rising disposable incomes and see wine as a more sophisticated and socially acceptable drink than beer or whisky.
“We’re going to see a tipping point in the next couple of years in domestic wine,” said Myles Mayall, a buyer and educator at The Wine Society of India, which sells imported and local cases.
While an Indian wine revival began 30 years ago, “only in the last four years has it been any good,” he said.
It has not been a smooth ride for smaller vineyards in Nashik.
Hambir Phadtare set up Mountain View winery in 2004 amid optimism over the Indian wine scene, but he sold off almost half of his land after the economic slowdown hit.
“When the hype was created, a lot of people jumped into the act without necessarily studying the whole thing,” he said.
Many struggled to distribute their bottles and to master tropical wine-making — still an experimental process, with limited grape varieties flourishing in warmer climes.
Yet confidence in Indian wine is slowly growing and Phadtare believes a key to success lies in wine tourists.
He is restructuring his business into a smaller “boutique” winery, with a tasting room and a restaurant on the roof.
“People still know very little about what wine is all about, but there’s increasing interest,” he said, mentioning executives who want to know their Malbec from their Merlot when on business trips abroad.
Faith in the Indian market has also come from foreign brands: There are now two Indo-Italian wineries in western India, while Moet Hennessy has bought land in Nashik and plans to produce an Indian sparkling wine.
“It’s a growing market, a lot of potential is there. Wine has a great future,” Moet Hennessy estate manager Rajesh Dixit said.